Category: March 2010

Myth or Reality?

U.S. prison populations continue to grow.

America has for decades locked up record numbers of offenders. Prison populations have grown year-to-year since 1972. Until recently, that is. For the first time in nearly 40 years, state prison populations have started to decline. According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, as of January of this year, there were 1,403,091 people under the jurisdiction of state prison authorities, 5,739 than at the end of 2008. There is still great variation from one jurisdiction to the next. The prison population declined in 27 states, but increased in 23 of them. Also, it is not clear whether 5,739 is a number worth getting excited about, as it is less than one-half of one percent of all prisoners. Finally, though no one knows whether or not this is the start of a new trend, the point is that for the first time in four decades, we have seen a reduction.

What explanations are offered for the overall reduction in state prison populations? One answer is diversion. Prosecutors who divert low-level offenders into probation, intermediate sanctions, and other programs help ensure fewer offenders are put behind bars. Another explanation is improved re-entry programs. Many prisoners are returning parolees, so when parole is improved and released inmates receive the treatment and benefits they need to be successful it is less likely they will go back to prison, which is reflected in prison population statistics. Yet another explanation is that people are becoming less willing to pay for incarceration and prison expansion, and instead favoring treatment and community-based programs.

Writing assignment: How has the current economic climate contributed to prison population reductions? Which states have released the most prisoners and what reasons have they offered for doing so?

Myth or Reality?

The best way to deal with drug-addicted offenders is through residential drug treatment while they are incarcerated.

Our long-term love affair with incarcerating offenders has resulted in a prison and jail population exceeding 2 million. Is this the best way to deal with people who commit crime and take drugs?  Are we better off locking them up or treating them in the community? While those concerned about public safety might suggest taking the safer path and treating offenders behind bars, new evidence suggests that community-based programs may be a better and more cost effective way to go.  A recent study by Christopher Krebs and his associates compared outcomes of large groups of drug-involved offenders in Florida.  The subjects were separated into three groups receiving either a) community-based treatment, b) residential treatment, or c) no treatment.  Krebs found that in comparison with no treatment, nonresidential drug treatment reduced the chances for a subsequent arrest for a felony for drug-involved probationers by 22%. Residential treatment, which costs 3 times more than community-based treatments, did not have similar success. Considering that there are so many offenders with substance abuse problems in the correctional system, the use of community-based treatment can result in significant increases in public safety, rather than doing nothing, and at a far less cost than locking up offenders.  At a time of declining budgets and high caseloads, the effectiveness of relatively inexpensive community treatment can be critical.

Writing Assignment:

Why do you suppose community based drug treatment may be more effective than a prison/or jail experience?  What is it about an institutional experience that neutralizes the benefits of drug treatment that are not present in community based programs?

Christopher P. Krebs, Kevin J. Strom, Willem H. Koetse, and Pamela K. Lattimore, The Impact of Residential and Nonresidential Drug Treatment on Recidivism Among Drug-Involved Probationers: A Survival Analysis
Crime & Delinquency 2009 55: 442-471

Myth or Reality?

Registering sex offenders helps cut down on repeat sex crimes.

Last week our blog addressed the vexing issue of how to treat and control sex offenders. A few days later, on February 28, 2010 17-year-old San Diego high school student Chelsea King was abducted, attacked and killed while running in a San Diego, California park. Police investigators used DNA evidence found on the body to identify John Albert Gardner III, a repeat offender, as Chelsea’s alleged attacker, the same man who in May of 2000 pled guilty to molesting a 13-year-old female neighbor and served five years of a six-year prison term.

As we noted last week, there are now laws that permit state officials to indefinitely confine presumably dangerous sex offenders, even after they have served their prison terms. In addition, a number of promising treatment approaches are now being developed. For example, some sex offenders undergo a process called “arousal reconditioning,” in which a deviant sexual fantasy they may be unable to control is linked with a foul odor such as ammonia or skunk spray, or a disturbing visual image, in order to reduce or neutralize inappropriate sexual feelings. But no single treatment has yet proven totally effective.

Another approach has been to enact Megan’s Laws that create sex offender registration sites that the public can access via the Internet. These laws are named after Megan Kanka, a seven year old New Jersey girl who was raped and murdered by Jesse Timmendequas, a sex offender who had moved into her neighborhood after being released from prison. Today all 50 states operate some form of registration alerting the public to the presence of a known sex offender in their community.

While politically attractive and socially reassuring, does registering sex offenders really work? Not according to careful research conducted by Kristen Zgoba and Karen Bachar who found that while expensive to maintain, the system incorporated in New Jersey did not produce effective results. On one hand, sex offense rates were in a steep decline before the system was installed and the greatest rate of decline occurred prior to the pas­sage and implementation of Megan’s Law. They also found that registering sex offenders did not reduce the number of re-arrests for sex offenses, nor did it have any demonstrable effect on the time between when sex offenders were released from prison and when they were re-arrested for any new offense, such as a drug, theft or a subsequent sex offense.

So while the public may find comfort in knowing that sex offenders in their community are registered and monitored, it may be a false sense of security.

Writing Assignment: What would you do with repeat sex offenders who repeatedly prey on children? Treat and release? Monitor in the community? Or keep them incarcerated until there is absolutely no question they will re-offend? Should sex offenders be treated differently than other criminals?

Source: Kristen Zgoba, Karen Bachar  “Sex Offender Registration and Notification: Research Finds Limited Effects in New Jersey” National Institute of Justice  April 2009